Manic fun under the orange roof. The Dio’s Murder at the Howard Johnson’s

Joshua Brown, Dale Dobson [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

Originally published at www.encoremichigan.com

If Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite  had been written by Mel Brooks and staged as a very special episode of The Carol Burnett Show, you would have The Dio’s latest Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. And if you are a child of the 70s, as I am, that is pretty high praise. The Dio, as always, has put on an extremely capable and professional production. What they do so well is provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, exceptionally produced and beautifully performed.

The piece is, as the title suggests, a series of vignettes around a possible murder (or murders) at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel. From Wikipedia: “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is a 1979 play in two acts by American playwrights Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. The production officially opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre after 10 preview performances on May 17, 1979; closing just three days later after only four more performances.” Surprisingly – and this could be why the play closed so quickly in its original incarnation – it is more prescient and self-aware than most similar farces of its era of the 70s’ overall garishness and often-absurd attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

It helps in great part that The Dio’s crackerjack production team – director Steve DeBruyne, assistant director Carrie Sayer, set/lighting/sound designer Matt Tomich, costume designer Norma Polk, and props master Eileen Obradovich – understand to an almost superhuman level the high wire act of balancing arch comedy and full-on camp without devolving into a soapy, self-indulgent mess. They really spin magic out of smartly utilized resources and raw talent at The Dio – that is what theatre is all about.

The production is an affectionate love letter to a blessedly bygone era. The color scheme is that of the classic hotel, and the dinner theatre food offerings before hand even more so. Why-oh-why American decor abandoned that lovely, preternatural turquoise and orange hue combo I’ll never know.

Molly Cunningham, Joshua Brown [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

For those unaware, The Dio always offers an immersive evening of entertainment, beginning with dinner and dessert before the performances. If you have a Midwestern palate like mine, and your idea of haute cuisine was shaped table-side at restaurants like Ho-Jo’s with a soundtrack of Hall and Oates and Air Supply in the background, the buffet of vintage delights will leave you chuckling and satisfied by its array of guilty pleasures. I’m vegetarian, and The Dio is always great about accommodating dietary needs, but even I was charmed by the clam strips on the menu. I remember thinking as a child that clam strips were the most exotic items I could order in any restaurant. The Dio has even replicated the vintage style of a Howard Johnson’s menu in the show’s program. No detail is left unturned.

The show is a hoot from start to finish, and, as the run progresses, the tight three-person ensemble will likely get looser and funnier, knowing when and where to milk the audience’s shock-and-awe over the spiraling shenanigans. Those audience reactions will be a key component to the success of this production. Not unlike Harvey Korman and Tim Conway legendarily “breaking” in the middle of a sketch because they had so surprised one another with a comic bit, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s will rise and fall by the affection the performers have for each other’s work. The audience on Saturday night was vocal and enthused, and the cast responded accordingly. The production finds an easy 70s groove with solid pacing, clever musical cues, and the aforementioned pitch perfect set and costume design. I had my covetous eye on one plaid jacket in particular.

Dale Dobson, as cuckolded used car salesman Paul Miller, nearly runs away with the show. Imagine if Gene Wilder and Charles Nelson Reilly had had a baby. No really. Imagine it. There is no place that brave Dobson won’t go – physically and emotionally – and his performance is a manic and escalating tour-de-force. Dobson’s character development pulls just to the right side of becoming an unhinged cartoon, the actor weaving in authentic notes of heartbreak and confusion over the realization that his beloved wife (“I bought her FIVE watches!”) has taken up with a hunky bald dentist who has an affinity for, yes, plaid jackets.

Molly Cunningham Joshua Brown, Dale Dobson [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

Joshua Brown as dandy dentist Mitchell Lovell is nicely understated (somebody has to be amidst the day-glo chaos), nailing the oddball swaggering machismo of the era, wherein sexual infidelities were seen as heroic accomplishments and men who had been weaned on too many cowboy movies thought a highly compensated career in, say, dentistry made them a modern day Wyatt Earp. The “Me Decade” had no idea #metoo was on its way. Brown has a gift for scoring laughs in the quiet moments, a glowering sidelong glance here, a well-placed sigh there. He is the Lyle Waggoner of this enterprise.

Molly Cunningham knocks it out of the park as Arlene Miller whose indiscretions and flights of murderous fancy launch the narrative into action. She has a knack for the throwaway line, scoring as many laughs with a tossed off zinger as she does the screwball physical comedy demanded by the production. Cunningham also does yeoman’s work keeping the slower moments moving along, setting up the piece’s increasingly hyperbolic tomfoolery.

The show is broken into three scenes (there is no intermission) placed across three holidays (Christmas, Independence Day, and New Year’s), all set in a Howard Johnson’s hotel room, as the trio plots and fails miserably to kill one of their own – a different victim each holiday – triggered by the passions Arlene sparks in the knuckle-headed men in her life. The play’s structure is a tad clunky, forcing the audience to become precoccupied with the passage of time – both in terms of the narrative’s chronology and the play’s length. Interestingly, this is the only element of the piece that reads as dated. However, the Dio’s production makes it all work so well that this becomes a minor criticism.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is great fun. Ibsen, it ain’t. Gloriously goofy, it is. Grab a bottle of wine; enjoy the buffet of carbs; and sit back for a night of relentlessly hysterical comedy. Under the orange roof, you won’t be disappointed.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Wilde Awards 2017: If only I had Wink Martindale’s career …


Well, the 2017 Wilde Awards Ceremony is in the history books. And a truly special night celebrating the best of Michigan theatre is over … for another 365 days.

As a kid, I was obsessed with game shows and awards ceremonies, so to suggest that co-hosting last night with EncoreMichigan’s David Kiley was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is no hyperbole. And more than a little dorky. If only I had Wink Martindale’s career.

I was humbled to be amongst such theatrical and critical talent last night, and to see so many personal friends receive well-deserved recognition last night affirmed that good people who work hard do earn the spoils. And my buddies still spoke to me after the show was over. #winning

Full list of winners and additional coverage here.



Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

Encore Michigan photos by Richard Rupp

 

“Modulating to the Stars” – The Dio’s Forever Plaid … Plus, Aaron C. Wade’s Possessive and Purple Rose’s Harvey

Matthew Wallace, James Fischer, Steve DeBruyne, Angel Velasco as The Plaids [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

In our household, we really dig The Dio – Livingston County, Michigan’s professional dinner theatre, a true labor of love from Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich. The company recently received a boatload of well-deserved Wilde Award Nominations for recent productions The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, including nominations for DeBruyne and Tomich themselves individually. (I’m looking forward to co-hosting the upcoming awards night on August 28 with my partner-in-shenanigans EncoreMichigan.com‘s publisher David Kiley.)

So John and I, who had both seen separate productions of the musical revue Forever Plaid about twenty years ago (mine in Columbus, Ohio and starring my delightfully talented buddy Joey Landwehr, and John’s in Ferndale, Michigan), have been eagerly awaiting The Dio’s production. I am happy to report that The Dio’s version honors the storied musical, infusing lovely grace notes of anarchy and poignancy that neither John nor I recalled noticing before.

Directed with graceful efficiency by DeBruyne and ably assisted by Dan Morrison (another Wilde nominee – I’m sensing a trend here), The Dio’s Forever Plaid clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes (not including the dinner service beforehand).

Crisp music direction to bring out the lush harmonies and to keep pace with the mile-a-minute medleys is crucial, and Brian Rose (who also gets pulled into the onstage hijinks) meets and exceeds that requirement.

Our friends Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham joined us. Aaron once served as house manager for Andy Williams’ Branson theatre, so he had LOTS of fun insight into this show’s era!

Costume designer Norma Polk gives the Plaids just the right touch of mid-century charm. And Tomich, as always, does a masterful job, leveraging lighting, set, and sound design to make The Dio’s challenging space work beautifully for the show’s unique needs, in this case a nightclub just beyond the Pearly Gates.

The conceit of Forever Plaid is that a quartet of harmonizing AV nerds – who have more affinity for AM-radio staples like Perry Como and Harry Belafonte than for The Beatles or Elvis Presley – are struck down by a busload of Catholic schoolgirls, schoolgirls who are on their way to catch The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Plaids were en route to record their first album, but, due to said unfortunate bus collision, they end up in heaven (or some Copacabana proximity of it) to play their final concert, just as America is switching its radio dials from light frothy pop to jangly/jarring rock-n-roll.

The Dio’s cast not only nails the smooth sounds of late 50s boy bands, but they deliver rich characterizations that are as hysterical as they are heartbreaking. As group leader Franky, DeBruyne is the consummate “big brother” – a loving, occasionally frazzled asthmatic, keeping the other three from spinning into apoplexy, aided and abetted by his trusty inhaler. “We will modulate to the stars,” he enthuses in one of his many pep talks to the boys.

Akin to the lovechild of Clark Gregg (Agents of SHIELD) and John Leguizamo, Angel Velasco is a delight as nosebleed prone Jinx, whose debilitating shyness melts away when he gets his brief moment in the spotlight.

James Fischer is a gleeful mix of smarm and charm as Sparky, who can barely master the au courant Spanish lyrics of “Perfidia” when they are written on his hand.

And Matthew Wallace is a tear-jerking ball of sunshine as the bespectacled Smudge, whose escape into the vinyl grooves of his beloved 45 collection (which he carries everywhere in a beat-up suitcase, complete with a not-so-hidden Mickey Mouse decal) gives the show its sweet/sad center.

Wallace, Fischer, DeBruyne, Velasco [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

Anyone who appreciates this era of music (as I do) will geek out over the set list, which includes “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Magic Moments,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and so on. All are delivered with an admirable balance of reverence and cheek, with subtle-but-damn-funny choreography that winks at the twee style these classic guy groups exemplified.

Showstopper “Lady of Spain,” toward the show’s conclusion, is staged as a salute to The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, and the entire “really big shoooow” gang. Sadly, this thought crossed my mind: “In ten years, if someone does this show again, will anyone in the audience know what the hell is going on during this sequence.” Dammit.

The Dio’s Forever Plaid wraps the performer’s nightmare in a gauzy blend of nostalgia, satire, and candy-sweet harmonies. For those who feel marginalized by the status quo, standing before an audience and opening your heart through the magic of lyrics and melody is a revelation, and to have it all taken away in an instant is as tragic as can be. Kudos to this production for honoring the silly escapism of the show while embracing its darker underscore. That is a rich harmony, indeed.

One more weekend to see Forever Plaid at The Dio. And get your tickets now as the last several performances have been sold out.

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[Image source: Possessive’s Facebook page]

If the Plaids share an aspirational obsession with achieving “that perfect chord,” the characters in Aaron C. Wade’s directorial film debut Possessive suffer from a more debilitating and prurient kind of obsession. Wade was our exceptional properties master on Ann Arbor Civic’s recent production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he did double (and triple) duty as our show photographer and videographer. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

His first film reveals exceptional potential for crafting cinematic narrative that is as compelling as it is repulsive. That’s a compliment, by the way, and I’m pretty certain he will be quite thrilled with that assessment.

You can find out more about his film by checking out the fan page here, where you will also find a link to the full film as well as updates on its upcoming DVD release. The film’s description reads, “The film Possessive is a romantic thriller story about a man with a well-hidden deviant core and a mentally unstable woman who claims him for her own.” Yup, and then some!

I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns Wade has in store for Possessive‘s viewers, but he has written a script that is as raw as it is confessional. He frames each scene with a visceral immediacy that is remarkably discomforting, and he has cast the production with an eclectic and talented team of local unknowns who exhibit a brave and impressive lack of vanity. Wade’s leads Sarah Lovy and Terence Cover (“Donald Reagan”) wring every bit of bruise black satire from this tragicomedy – two lost souls whose fetishized obsessions with the details of each other’s lives prevent them from ever actually knowing one another.

I look forward to seeing Wade’s future work. He is one to watch. And how great that we have so much remarkable local talent willing to share their gifts with the world.

(Check out Aaron’s assessment of Fenton Village Players’ current production of Thoroughly Modern Millie here.)

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[Image source: The Purple Rose’s Facebook page]

Finally, here is another kind of obsession – the affection of Elwood P. Dowd for his invisible friend “Harvey,” a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall “pooka” who takes the form of an anthropomorphic rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

Currently, Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose Theatre (also nominated for a number of Wilde Awards) is performing this theatrical classic. I have not yet seen it, but the reviews have been stellar.

That said, I wanted to give a shout out to my former St. Joseph Mercy Health System colleague Jaclyn Klein who organized a remarkable talk back after the Sunday, July 16 matinee performance. Members of the cast and crew alongside St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Hospital physicians discussed how attitudes toward mental health have changed for the better (or worse) since the play debuted in 1945. The presentation, ably facilitated by local news personality Lila Lazarus, was live streamed on Facebook. You can catch the video here. Kudos to all!

Harvey runs through August 26, and tickets can be purchased here.

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Everybody loves The Dio! Ran into my Xanadu/Urinetown castmate Paige Martin and Urinetown castmate Maika Van Oosterhout at the performance

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.